What to do when even a soothing stroll at the beach begins to feel political?

Claudia Sternbach
Claudia Sternbach walks at Seacliff State Beach almost daily and is disturbed by flags and shirts supporting the Second Amendment she has started to see.
(Courtesy of Claudia Sternbach)

Claudia Sternbach has lived in Aptos for 40 years and walks her beloved Seacliff State Beach almost every day. She recalls the beach of her childhood as a place of sun, fun and surfers, “those magical creatures celebrated by The Beach Boys.” She never considered the beach “feeling political.” But lately, she’s seen flags and shirts supporting the Second Amendment displayed prominently along her daily walk, which includes a memorial to her late sister. “Do I have a right, a duty even, to speak out? My gut instinct says, hell yes!,” she says. “My liberal, Santa Cruz mentality (after taking a deep breath) says no.”

It wasn’t that I had no familiarity with Santa Cruz when my husband and I decided to move here from Mexico in 1982 to start a life. Santa Cruz has always been part of my history.

My father used to tell the story of his deciding to become a Marine based on a trip to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk in the late 1940s. He was just 18 and the war was raging in Europe. He was itching to join up, but could not decide which branch of the military was right for him.

He and his buddies drove over the hill from San Jose to spend a sunny afternoon checking out the girls at the beachside amusement park and, after a day of corndogs, sodas and I’m guessing, beers, these horndogs decided the most fetching girls were often on the arms of young, strapping Marines in full uniform. My father admired the uniform and was impressed with the babes the uniform attracted.

He enlisted the following week and in no time was fighting the Japanese.

I can still remember poking around in my father’s study in our Oakland home and finding a Japanese rising sun flag folded up in a drawer. I loved the bright red rising sun against the snow-white background and how silky it felt when I rubbed it between my fingers. I also remember discovering in that same drawer a rattlesnake’s rattle wrapped in cotton and a magazine filled with black and white photos of naked women, which I never did question my father or mother about. My dad moved out when I was 7, so the opportunity to find out more about these treasures never presented itself. When he left, he took the contents of the drawer with him.

By the time I was an almost-teenager, my mother would load my sisters and me into the station wagon and drive us from Oakland to Santa Cruz for an afternoon at the Boardwalk. I think half of our dishes came from the coin toss game. Pitch a dime over the pink or green “crystal” cups, saucers, goblets and if that slender coin stuck, the object of your desire would be handed to you with great ceremony.

Santa Cruz was to all of us, even my mother, a place to forget the real world and just let loose and have fun. Bobby McFerrin hadn’t written the song yet, but “Don’t Worry Be Happy” would have been the perfect soundtrack for those Santa Cruz afternoons.

Once my friends and I were old enough to earn a driver’s license, anyone who had access to a car became the most popular person in the group. After loading up the trunk with towels and blankets, we would make the drive over Highway 17 and to the beaches of Santa Cruz.

Our goal wasn’t to search out military men and the girls on their arms. We wanted to see surfers. Those magical creatures celebrated by the Beach Boys. To spot a group of big board wave riders was like spotting a herd of unicorns, as far as I was concerned. The more time we spent exploring, the more I became attached to the different beaches along our coastline. To the serenity they provided. They were not as crowded as they often become today, but still the sand was dotted with bright-colored beach towels and shade-providing umbrellas.

Seacliff Beach became one of my favorites. Filled with picnickers taking advantage of the weather and the fairly mild surf, it always felt like the perfect place to take a break from reality. Walking out on the pier to look at the S.S. Palo Alto — forever known as the Cement Ship (or, more accurately, the concrete ship) — was a trip back in time. Built in Oakland in 1919 to be used in World War I, it was completed too late to see any action, and then arrived here to live out its life.

We heard stories of the dances which took place on the permanently grounded ship back in the 1930’s and I imagined well-dressed folks out there swaying to big bands. The lilting sounds of music and laughter.

We loved the free-spiritedness of Santa Cruz. The feeling of acceptance. Everyone was welcome. Peace, it seemed, was always in the air.

Now, more than 50 years later, I rarely miss a day walking down at Seacliff Beach. The S.S Palo Alto is no longer a place for dancing. It has been beaten down by time and weather. The promenade is still a perfect place to get some fresh air and exercise. Spending even an hour can refresh the soul. Strolling along and finding a wedding taking place, or a birthday or baby shower is an added bonus.

Just as it has been for decades, it is a place shared by people of all walks of life. The smell of barbecue floats through the air. The boombox music, the laughter. For years the highlight of my walk was the wall at the far end of the camping area.

For as long as I can remember, it had been a place to honor loved ones. To memorialize those who have passed or to celebrate anniversaries and other big life events. People placed plaques there with meaningful sayings, photos, hearts and flowers. I loved seeing people who were part of our coastal history right there, where we could appreciate them, even though we may never have met.

When my sister died, 7 years ago I placed a tile on the wall to honor her.

I visited it every day. I enjoyed strolling along past the RVs down to the wall, and often campers would ask me about the remembrances and I acted like a tour guide, pointing out some of my favorites. I always introduced them to my sister.

All of the memorials disappeared in 2016. The homeowner who owned the wall didn’t want them and — despite a petition to save the tiles and plaques — they vanished. The wall is privately owned, so that was that.

I will confess there is still a very small remembrance in place for my sister. I still visit it. It still gives me some comfort.

Claudia Sternbach still has a private memorial to her sister at Seacliff State Beach.
(Courtesy of Claudia Sternbach)

Lately, I have noticed other changes at the park.

While I don’t recall the beach feeling political in years past, politics have begun to creep into this place of sun and fun. The other day, as I was walking past the folks setting up their campsites, hooking up their RVs, hanging their “It’s 5 o’clock somewhere” banners, I was startled to see a man wearing a shirt which read “Family, Faith, Friends, Flag, Firearms.” It put a real kink in my day.

I felt helpless. I mean, does one confront a person who is wearing a shirt declaring his love of guns? Do I have a right, a duty even, to speak out? My gut instinct says, hell yes! My liberal, Santa Cruz mentality (after taking a deep breath) says no. Free speech is free speech even if the sentiments are ugly.

Yesterday, along with the “It’s wine time” flags, several American flags flew high along with yellow, “Don’t tread on me” flags. That put a kink in my stomach.

Claudia Sternbach has started to see yellow, "don't tread on me" flags in Aptos.
(courtesy of Claudia Sternbach)

When I noticed an American flag turned into a flag supporting the Second Amendment just days after the mass shooting in Highland Park during a July 4 parade, I actually felt nauseous. I hoped that other visitors to our shoreline didn’t think this was typical Santa Cruz behavior.

Once again, I had to accept the rights of these flag-wavers to speak out.

I’m praying flags like these will be a temporary addition to our beautiful coastal community. It won’t, however, keep me away. I have so much history in this place I call home.

Claudia Sternbach is the author of three memoirs. Her most recent is “Dear Goldie Hawn, Dear Leonard Cohen” Paper Angel Press. Her last piece for Lookout, I bought my Aptos house for $100K in 1981. Friends tell me I’m lucky; I don’t agree,” appeared in June.

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